Friday, December 14, 2007

Phonies, Cronies, American Ironies, American Gangsters: Armond White Conversation, Part II

Oops, looks like there will be a Part III to this discussion. The last leg of our talk is too reflective of the first part to go here. (Part I right here. More of the White stuff here.)

STEVEN BOONE: I think why I hold onto this notion of poor filmmakers from the 'hood leaping out of nowhere with brave, crazy, visionary films is because some of my favorite reviews of yours... if a young filmmaker can comprehend what these things are saying to him, he could almost take it as his marching orders. I feel like, if I actually finally complete a film, part of my engine will be some of those reviews-- What you wrote about Shaft, what you wrote about Malcolm X, Sounder. You're addressing the artistry of the films, but you're also addressing a certain cultural void, concepts that audiences are thirsty for, I feel. You can call it an aristocratic medium, bourgoise... but I think that people going to the movies are not conscious that they're deficient, but their cynical attitudes have something to do with the fact that they were subconsciously looking for something more, and they're not getting it. And the cynycism builds and builds and builds.

ARMOND WHITE: Well, that cynicsim, I think, is a recent development. It wasn't always like that. Yeah, its a bourgoise art form, but its also a popular art. Back in the good old days-- even before I was born-- Hollywood studios understood that it was a popular art. They felt they had a mandate not just to get people's money. They had a mandate to address the public, largely a public of working-class and immigrant peoples. The movies had entirely different values in the '20s and '30s, and that's... all gone now. So the irony of this bourgoise art form appealing to poor people is a beautiful irony, an American irony. That's what America's about, in a way. That people with money understood what it was like not to have money; didn't condescend to people who didn't have money. Gave them something substantial, something beautiful. That's all gone now. Hollywood's not interested in making Shaft, they're interested in making American Gangster. A nightmare. A nightmare largely because of what it says about our values, as a people. And of course, that's going to breed a cyncial public, because there's no heart in it. To castigate critics again: One of the great American filmmakers is one most critics don't know and never talk about-- they're not even curious about. This guy Frank Borzage. Made movies in the '20s and his peak was in the '30s, when he won two Academy Awards for Best Director. His greatest films are usually about the spiritual struggles of working-class people. Film critics couldn't care less about Frank Borzage. They prefer to make reference to cynical filmmakers, less talented filmmakers, like Billy Wilder, for instance. Even though he's from a different period, really, Billy Wilder is a totem for so many awful film critics. And his movies are nothing but cyncism.

SB: Hmm...

AW: The New York Film Critics Circle had a program of films at the Musuem of the Moving Image two years ago, showed Borzage's, um.... can't think of the name of the film. But it was from the '30s, which was his greatest period, and, uh, none of my colleagues came to the screening. I noticed very few young people at the screening. It seems to me that they're not interested anymore in movies that offer the general audience a substantive, humane vision. Just not interested. And that's... that's awful. And the thing with Borzage, what he stood for is what you see in movies like Sounder and in Chameleon Street, in Beloved. Nowadays, critics castigate Stanley Kramer, for The Defiant Ones and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, as if those were shameful movies. They're not at all. They're much more craftsmanly than Sidney Lumet. Kramer's a much better filmmaker than Lumet. But because Lumet's movies are genuinely ugly and cynical, they prefer that. They laugh at Stanley Kramer. There's nothing to laugh at in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. It's quite a serious film. It's a heroic example of mainstream filmmakers dealing with an issue that's important to everybody, regardless of class, and doing it with as much professionalism and artistry as they knew how to muster-- and you feel it. You feel it. There's a reason Sidney Poitier was the number one box office star in 1967. Not because the movies were great works of art, but they were great works of popular culture. They spoke to what was important to people, and not cynically. that's all gone out of the culture now. You make a movie that addresses the popular audience respectfully these days, you get laughed at, the way critics are laughing at The Darjeeling Limited. That's horrifying.

SB: Right, because my personal reaction to The Darjeeling Limited... it did reach out to me, across-- It made me confront some of my own prejudices, my own close-mindedness to a certain extent when it comes to people of privilege. These guys, these three rich assholes, who are used to a certain sense of entitlement, and here they are in India, on some kind of pilgrimage, with all of that baggage. That film, to me, functions in the same way that you say Borzage's films functioned for poor people. All that stuff aside, it said to me, none of us can help what we were born into, but we're all-- or a lot of people are-- basically just trying. We're trying. Working with the situation that we were born into. The brothers don't get along. There's a lot of reasons for that, a lot of which won't even be addressed in the film, but we know it, through the compositions and the performances, the way Anderson unfolds the story. It reaches across the line and makes it human.

AW: Well, it's like you wrote to me in email, you said it has the most beautiful image of a baby you'd ever seen, and I'm glad you isolated that, because it's true. I think I felt that when I saw that image, but I didn't articulate it the way you did. That's... You hit it. And my God, how critics can look at that and dismiss this movie! What world are they from? Because that's the essence of what that film is about, recognizing the beauty of humanity. I spoke to some stupid person about it, and I said, "Don't you have siblings?" They said, "I have to have siblings to understand that movie?" I said, "It would help." If you've ever had a loving, aggravating relationship with anybody, you ought to be able to relate to those brothers are presented in that movie. That's the beauty of being human!

SB: It's only going to reward someone in that way if they're someone who watches films... sequentially. They have to watch. Watching shots unfold, one footstep after another. Each cut has a certain impact, relates a certain story--

AW: That is the way we watch movies. All that nonsense about "quirky" is just that, nonsense. You watch the scenes unfold, the shots follow each other, but basically you're watching human beings behave. You either relate to that or you don't. People have outside ideas about Wes Anderson and what he does, and they're letting that get in the way of what's up there on the screen. What's on the screen isn't difficult at all.

SB: Not at all.This one forces me to go back to The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic, films which I've tried to watch on DVD-- didn't catch them in the theater. I kind of went with the argument that his films are like these precious doll houses, and I couldn't warm up to them for some reason the way I did Rushmore and Bottle Rocket. Now I have to see them again.

AW: And these are very prejudicial accuastions to make against the films, because every filmmaker's making doll houses. So?

SB: Like, what's wrong with a doll house?

AW: Exactly. Actually, it's true of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. It's just an ugly, collapsing doll house.

SB: I also sense some self-consciousness in the reactions, since a lot of critics come from a similar background as these three privileged characters. So there's a little bit of, "Oh, this is ugly."

AW: Some people say, "Oh, it's white boys in India!" Now they're concerned about watching white boys for two hours? Now?

SB: Yeah, exactly. And I've had white people look to me for validation on that point. They're shocked when I'm like, "no, if I'm gonna see white boys in India, I want to know who these guys are." Anderson doesn't shy away from real behavior.

AW: Well, it reminds me of the stupid criticism of the films of Whit Stillman, like The
Last Days of Disco
. They complain that it's a film about white people, just about white
people. Oh, now you're concerned about "just about white people"? What about when 90% of the movies that come out there are only about white people, that's okay. When they finally get a filmmaker who understands what race and class mean, they complain. Actually let me put it better: When they get a filmmaker who understands what white privilege means, then they complain. Filmmakers who just accept white privilege as the natural order, that's fine. Let's celebrate that and throw some Oscars at it.

SB: Kind of ignore the whole fact of it.

AW: "White boy." That's not a criticism of Wes Anderson and Whit Stillman. They understand the white world. You think they understand that Ron Howard is a white boy? That Steven Soderbergh is a white boy? They don't even think about that. The same goes for Spike Lee. The laughable irony about Spike Lee is he's always getting good reviews. I've enjoyed this circus for many years. His movies always get good reviews, but come the end of the year when critics give their ten best lists, his films are nowhere to be found. They're all playing that game, "oh, yes, we're open-minded, we're liberal. We love Spike Lee because he's a cantankerous Negro." But they really don't give a shit about his movies, when it comes down to it. Happens all the time.

SB: Putting their vote in?

AW: Yeah. Nonsense.

SB: I finally saw this year a film which my ex-girlfriend used to beg me to watch whenever it came on cable, a film called The Landlord. Superficially, you know, just passing through the house and glancing at it on TV, it seemed like some kind of cheapjack, sort of upscale blaxploitation. But when I saw it at Film Forum, I was floored. And I was shocked that it was kind of passed off as this minor kind of first film, way in the shadows of Altman films, Coppola films, all those '70s-- but to me it's one of the bravest, most adventurous films of all time, stylistically, but also in terms of where it was willing to go.

AW: Welcome to an understanding of the way film culture works; the ideology of film culture, which is run by middle class white people, who only want movies that flatter them. Those are the only movies that get talked about. The Landlord is not by any means an obscure little film. It was released by United Arist. It had stars in it. Critics just chose to ignore it, over the years.

SB: I mean, just for the way the movie exploded when Lous Gossett had that mental collapse and was chasin Beau Bridges around with an axe-- that hit me where I live.

AW: Well, it was a rich cultural period. People would make movies like that. They're not doing that anymore. That's part of what I mean by criticism being worse than the movies, because critics are less in tune now with films like that than they were then.

SB: So you've run the New York Film Critic's Circle.

AW: Mm-hm.

SB: You're in the critical establishment. You're, like, one of the faces of the critical establishment. And you maintain that this is a middle class, upper class, bourgoise art form. How do you live with that?

AW: By recognizing that there is such a thing as racism, recognizing that white supremacy is operating in most of our institutions... and knowing it, and not forgetting it. But also, being raised as an open-minded person, who values James Baldwin as well as D.W. Griffith. I do.

SB: James Baldwin, who, by the way, had some harsh things to say about Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. He's actually the one who kind of put me off to it.

AW: Well, you have to see everything for yourself, of course. He had his opinion, which is fine, but he was wrong. Thank God he wasn't a film critic. (laughs) He had some great things say about the movies, race and American society in general.

SB: One thing that ties you to a guy you have a lot of criticism for, Michael Moore, is that he seems to have a lot of animosity for people who don't, um, mind their neighbors, in a way. In Sicko, his whole thing was, "We're all in this together," and that the health care system is dysfucntional and not helping people largely because people don't have enough of a generous attitude, understanding that it is only to your benefit to think about the next man, the man to the right of you, the man to the left of you. That's what I took away from the film, and it kind of jibes with your whole attitude about how people producing pop culture should approach their work. Be mindful, be humane. So I'm trying to reconcile these two notions--

AW: Well, but Michael Moore is a phony. He doesn't have any black people in his organization. You know he's done nothing for his hometown of Flint, Michigan...? He's a phony. I think it's as simple as that. But he's also--

SB: He hired my cousin as a camerman.

AW: Well, how long did that last?

SB: I don't know. He shot part of Sicko. Um, and I think he worked on Fahrenheit.

AW: Hmm, that's not what I been reading. Go to his office. Ain't no black folks.

SB: But does he have to hire Black folks, for you to feel--

AW: Yes, yes he does.

SB: (laughs)

AW: There's a great line in Public Enemy's Can't Truss It: "Beware of the hand when it's coming from the left. " Can't trust it. Lefties talk a good game, talk all this liberal shit, talk it but they don't walk it.

SB: Now, in your reaction to Michael Moore, you sound extremely patriotic, almost in line with the neocons. What is that? What's going on there?

AW: Only stupid people think that. If you read me closely, you know. I'm afraid people expect me to have predictable, kneejerk responses to everything. When I don't, they don't know what to think. What a crazy reduction, to say, "If you don't like Michael Moore, you must love the American administration."

SB: How do you feel about the administation?

AW: That's me. That's for me to feel. I don't need to broadcast it. You know, I take these movies as they come. And if there's not enough truth in them, if there's not enough art in them, I'm gonna dis 'em. Doesn't mean anything to me that Michael Moore claims to be on the left. So what? He made a shitty movie. A badly argued film. I have to like his movie because he believes in health care? No.

SB: You have to like his movie because he puts across, in a compelling way, this sentiment, that, as Americans--

AW: I wasn't compelled--

SB: --as Americans we have a common interest and have to come together and look after each other. You're saying that he's full of shit, he doesn't believe that at all.

AW: Nah, I'm just saying that as far as whether that has anything to do with making a film valuable, I don't know. You can take that awareness that he presents... and two dollars... and get on the subway. Americans need health insurances, so what? Big fuckin' deal. That ain't news. He really hasn't done the hard work of an artist, which is to let people recognize their humanity and the humanity of others. In this period in particular, he doesn't do the hard work of making people recognize how most everybody acts out of self-interest.

SB: Hmm...

AW: To me, that is the real...

SB: Hmm...

AW: That is the real thing that undercuts all of Fahrenheit 9/11. You know the old saying, when you're pointing a finger at somebody there's ten more pointing back at you? Because he's all about selfishness. He likes to point fingers at other people.

SB: But I think he gets the job done in Sicko because he made me feel the hurt and desperation of people who are about to die because of some loopholes and technicalities in health insurance policy.

AW: You needed a movie to feel that?

SB: I didn't need a movie to feel that, but we could use a film like that.

AW: To me, that's not the issue. Of course it's terrible that people don't have sufficient health care. The real issue is, why don't we? To me, the real issue is that we don't because some people make more money this way. He doesn't deal with the people who make more money and how satisfied they are with it. That is something tha liberals have in common with neocons: They're living well. It's a joke to read reviews of Michael Moore movies written by people living in condominiums. They believe in all this liberal stuff, and they're just packing the money away. Elvis Costello's great line in Green Shirt, "You can please yourself, but somebody's gonna get it." Michael Moore never gives you that reality. Everybody's out to please themselves, but somebody's got to pay for it. Health care is the tip of the iceberg.

SB: He's naming names, identifying political figures who take huge--

AW: Stop pointing to political-- Stop pointing to the obvious people, and to less obvious people, um, like the folks who run the MTA. Pocketing away money in an obscene fashion. They're doing it because they don't give a shit about their fellow man.

[EDITORIAL S.O.S.: Okay, this isn't the first time in the conversation Mr. White and I slammed into an obvious, glaring contradiction in our respective lines of argument and kept on trucking, but this one is collossal, and mutual. Had to hit PAUSE here. How can either of us talk so much smack about humanism and empathy, only to engage in the same kind of cynical finger-pointing we both deride? Sometimes within the same sentence! I'll take the blame. I was exhausted, just came off the night shift, wired on caffeine. My dog ate it.

The real question for White at this moment was, "If people in condiminiums are responsible for such solipsistic, self-serving film reviews, why do you trust them and only them to make movies worth watching?" Another good one would have been, "What self-interest do you act out of? How much of your personal culpability in our problems as a people do you allow into your work?" Those were the questions, but I didn't think to ask them. Something along those lines was stirring in the following exchange, though.]

SB: Who are these movies for? Who are movies for?

AW: They're for selfish people who can go enjoy their summer homes. They can see something like Sicko and feel good about it.

SB: No, I mean all movies.

AW: Oh, for everybody, like I said about the '30s and Borzage.

SB: What do you feel is your responsibility as a critic to your readers, and what do you think you're doing for them?

AW: To give them things they won't get anywhere else, to put it simply. If you help people understand who they are in the world, then they're on their way to independence, rather than being slaves to capitalism.

SB: Do you feel that there should be films that gather up into sort of a loose movement?

AW: No, not necessary. People been through that, doesn't work. I also love to be suprised by films that help you understand what it is to be a human being, something like Nacho Libre. Something critics were quick to dismiss, "silly movie." They never got Jared Hess anyway, really. Napoleon Dynamite surprised all of them. Didn't surprise me-- well, it did surprise me, actually, but I realized what I was looking at. They don't want movies like that, that are about being a human being in the world.

SB: The praise of Napoleon Dynamite that I read was really superficial. But then I caught it on cable and was surprised at how rich it was.

AW: You didn't read my review, didja?

SB: I did not read your review. (laughs)

AW: (laughs) See? That's why I'm doin it!



John Demetry said...

The Borzage film that Armond White presented at MOMI was No Greater Glory.

Steven Boone said...

Thanks, John. How was it?

Brian said...

I'm not John, but No Greater Glory is a masterpiece. White's right; Borzage is an undersung great filmmaker of an era that is increasingly marginalized. Perhaps the classic Hollywood studio system seems far removed from the concerns of modern filmmakers, but it's a shame that someone with the humanistic resolve of Borazge, as demonstrated in films like Seventh Heaven, Man's Castle, the Mortal Storm and Moonrise, can seem all but irrelevant today, when it's precisely his appropriation and transcending of patterns of melodrama that is missing from the vast majority of the American cinematic landscape. I hope that White's less fortuitous comments in this section of the interview don't turn people away from a master like Borzage, due to "guilt by association."

Keith Uhlich said...

Here here on Borzage, particularly for me, The Mortal Storm and History is Made at Night.

BJW said...

Very nice interview; I'm totally fascinated by this guy.

The thing that drives me nuts about him the most is this: for someone who is (A) trying to elevate the film culture of this country and (B) trying to promote humanist perspectives, he sure can be a mean old son of a bitch! There is so much childish, mean name-calling in his criticism and interviews that it's embarassing. It seems like he is obsessed with other critics he doesn't respect to such a degree that it colors his reading of a film. "Pathetically stupid," he said of Darjeeling reviews. He said anyone who likes Margot at the Wedding is a moron. I ask you this: is this kind of attitude really helpful in advancing the seriousness of film culture? Or in promoting humanism? It's counter to both!